10 Things You Need to Know About Ableism

Ableism is a term that many people have not heard before. Like all the other -isms (racism, sexism, etc.), it means discrimination – in this case, toward disability. Ableism assumes that being ‘abled’ is the standard, so being ‘disabled’ is inferior. Ableism, like all the other -isms, is complex and hard to understand. But it is rooted in oppression of disabled people. (And I use ‘identity-first language,’ since many self-advocates are starting to prefer that.) There are aspects of ableism that even seem nice! That’s why it can be deceiving, subtle, and perhaps ironic. So here are 10 general things you need to know about ableism:

  1. Pity: Many of our perceptions of disability are based on pity. Often the first reaction to hearing about a person’s disability is grief or regret, or even fear. We have been socialized to consider disability a misfortune or something unwanted. Often, when a baby is born, we hear, “He/she is perfect and has all his/her fingers and toes.” That is sort of an ableist statement because the value is on having a proportionate body. That thinking is extended to our minds, as well. If someone doesn’t fit the prescribed template of what is deemed an acceptable human being, then it is viewed as problematic. We don’t want your pity, though. Gillette Children’s Speciality Healthcare, a major provider of healthcare services to disabled children and adults, created a “Cure Pity” campaign that was aimed at tackling the real barrier: pity. Sure, disabilities can mean obstacles and struggles, but many of them are societal. We can focus on problem-solving and working toward solutions, rather than pitying the individual for being who they are – a full person. We can focus on the social model and address community barriers, instead of treating people as less human.
  2. Tragedy narrative: This is very related to pity. The tragedy narrative is a pervasive, negative story about disability that treats disability like it’s bad. How would you like to be told every day that what you are is tragic? These are messages that get internalized and create social barriers to independence. Instead of thinking of disability as a tragedy, we can reframe it as diversity. It is a normal part of life. Disabled people can and do live great lives! That may surprise some people. Living with disability, my reality is different from how it may look on the outside. Focus on the abilities of the person. And keep in mind that what we value is taught. We just have not been taught much about disability that is accurate. We will live better lives with better understanding. We may need to reject what we have been taught.
  3. Inspiration porn: This is a term that raises eyebrows, because, “porn.” Good. We need to call it what it is. And what is it? This is when disabled people are portrayed as inspirational things, or are objectified for ableist delight. Often in the media, a disabled person will be glorified for something ordinary, as though nobody expected anything from them. If people think you can’t do anything, then of course they will be impressed when you do something basic, like leaving the house. Yawn. How about applauding something actually meaningful, like accomplishing something significant, not just breathing. It is also media representations of people that cast disabled people as dependent on abled people. It’s not disability advocacy to perpetuate disability tragedy stereotypes like helpless, broken victims who need to be saved either physically or spiritually by a non-disabled person acting like a hero. Think about the juxtaposition between disabled and non-disabled people in these scenarios. Disabled people are not objects, props, or tokens to make you look good. We are not special angels or people born to teach us about love. We are every bit as human as anyone else. We deserve respect on our own terms. You don’t need to take us to prom or let us score the winning goal. We’re good. If you want to hold the door for someone, wait until you are asked. The hardest thing for people about this one is it seems so nice! But don’t be fooled. You don’t get to be the saint or hero at a disabled person’s expense. Be your own hero.
  4. Low expectations: Disabled people are underestimated constantly, and it is discrimination. Due to social programming, we don’t expect that someone who is disabled can do as much as a non-disabled person. I call ableism! If someone is physically disabled, assumptions are made about their cognitive abilities. So even if you are a little wobbly, people will also figure that you are mentally incompetent. Not that it’s a bad thing. We don’t understand our own humanity very well. Psychology is still a very new science, and it wasn’t long ago that we held all sorts of ridiculous notions about science. It’s no wonder that we don’t get it yet. IQ tests, for example, are way overrated. IQ does not equal intelligence. It’s one type of test that measures limited information. It’s like using a teaspoon to measure everything in the world. There are many cultural differences, learning styles, and types of intelligence. It is impossible to measure them all in a quantified way. Get to know people. We’re all talented and you can learn from everyone. Disability doesn’t mean inability.
  5. Compensation: This is related to everything on this list. When we feel sorry for someone, we may be inclined to compensate for what we think they are lacking. It may look like bending the rules, coddling, and making excuses. Basically, it looks a lot like enabling because we don’t want to add more burden to what we already feel is a burdened life. Hold up! Being disabled doesn’t mean that you live such a bad life that everyone around you should try to compensate for it. We don’t want freebies and passes because people feel sorry for us. We want equality and access. Everyone is working toward greater self-sufficiency, on their own terms. This means support and appropriate challenges that fit the individual, which should also be ‘self-directed’ or promoted by the person – at times perhaps with support or facilitation. Compensation is like telling people what to do – it takes away their personal power.
  6. Minimization: This is also related to everything on this list. Where to start, there is so much of this. Minimization is when we try to make something small. It goes hand-in-hand with invalidation (rejected, ignored, judged). A statement representing minimization and invalidation could be: “A lot of people have it worse than you.” That type of a statement is essentially saying that your problem is small and you are wrong to feel that way. That does not help the person at all – it’s demeaning. Perhaps the intent is to try to make the person feel grateful, but it says to the person that their disability experience is their fault. Some disabilities are mental illnesses, and that is the worst thing you could say to someone who is depressed, for example. It treats the disability as though it is something you can wish away, when it is a medical, physical condition – including those that are psychological. Have you ever analyzed a brain scan, like an fMRI? OK, then sit down. If you are not a medical doctor or clinical psychologist, specific to that individual, you are not qualified to tell someone what to think or do about their physical condition. Listen and learn, and don’t instruct. You’re out of your league.
  7. Tokenism: People are not things. That is all. Don’t treat someone like their disability is all they are.
  8. Over-helping: Compensation is related to over-helping because people sometimes feel like they need to do more for someone to make up for what they think they can’t do or would have a hard time doing. Don’t just tie someone’s shoes because you think it will take forever and you feel bad for them. Stand by if you are needed, but don’t act like a parent and start doing things for people that they didn’t ask you to do. How annoying! So what if it takes someone longer than you to do what they need to do. They are on their timeline, not yours. Chill.
  9. Poster child syndrome: Back in the day, the Muscular Dystrophy Association did telethons that exploited children with muscular dystrophy for the purpose of fundraising. Barf. They didn’t know better, but they just shouldn’t have. Jerry Lewis, you were better than that. It isn’t fair to make someone into a poster child for their disability type(s). It labels someone as just their disability when that is only part of who they are. It would be like referring to you as only your height or weight. It takes a whole, complex person and shrinks them down to a living stereotype. Please don’t.
  10. Lack of accommodations: The largest issue is the lack of accommodation – not the disability itself. A person with limited mobility who may use a wheelchair is held back by the lack of physical access, for example. Every one of us needs different types of community supports, whether or not we are aware of what they are. We just haven’t typically expanded support to accommodate disability. We change buildings now, like doorways and ramps. But not all disabilities are physical and some of the newest changes have been in technology and content development. Society has typically served a very narrow segment of the population and that is part of the reason that society is comfortable only with a subset of certain diversity spectrums. We can open our minds to consider much more variety of human experience. Then maybe we won’t feel so bad when someone else’s life is different from ours. Universal design is the future, so that we are being inclusive of disability on the front end, and not adding accessibility features as an afterthought. Who wants to be an afterthought? I thought so.

Pop quiz: what is ableism? Hopefully you will remember at least part of this list. And remember, listening, even with conflicting messages from various perspectives, is key to increasing disability understanding. Also, disabilities are all over the map from physical, cognitive, intellectual, developmental, and neuropsychological. You don’t have to be an expert, but you can show you want to make an effort to learn. Thanks for reading and making an effort! 🙂

Born Into the System

I wrote this about my daughter and becoming a mother in an institutional setting.

“Born Into the System”

In the middle of the night, on January 31, 1998, my 2 lbs. 6 oz. baby girl was born to a mother who was a poor single teenager living in Minneapolis. She arrived with no prior knowledge of her circumstances. How would she know what to expect? She was innocent. Fragile. Vulnerable. Clinging to life. And not expected to live. If she did make it, her introduction to life would be filled with difficulties.

Right out of the womb, she was resuscitated. Then immediately connected to a web of tubes and wires for life-support, and encased in a plastic box, a.k.a. an incubator or isolette. Not for the first day, or first week. But for the first three months.

Every day and every night, almost like a science experiment, lying in the box, while medical professionals poked and prodded, drew blood, inserted IVs, and fed tubing up through her nose and into her stomach for nutrition.

Bright lights shining everywhere in a sterile environment.

And love?

Love could be provided when medically safe to do so. Her mother, who worked several shifts seven days a week, came to visit on her breaks. And she stayed all night. Sometimes she would simply sit there, looking at her. Sometimes she would talk to her. But she had to be careful not to overstimulate this fragile tiny life. She sang lullabies, softly through an opening in the plastic box.

There she was, in an institution. Not at home being snuggled and kissed. Not being admired by friends or family who had been anticipating her arrival. No photos. No videos. No celebration. Just a cold, hollow, empty hospital ward.

And time slowly crept forward. Slow minutes. Endless days. It seemed like life would always be like this. Would it ever change? It seemed like it would not. And from the corner with the box, with a new human being trapped inside, the young mother waited alone, watching happy couples exit the hospital with their babies, arms full of flowers and gifts, smiling with joy she could only imagine.

And day by day, time slowly crawled.

And the baby grew. She got bigger. Stronger. And she opened her eyes to look at her mother. She waved her arms around like she had so much to say. And when the tube was removed from her throat, she could breathe on her own, and cry with sound. She became conscious of her surroundings, such as they were.

She began to drink from a bottle. She stopped forgetting to breathe as often. And when her heart rate dropped, she recovered. She was moved to a crib.

Time moved an inch. At a time.

The hospital staff decided that it would soon be time for the young mother to take the baby home. She would have to be trained and interviewed, and the baby would need to be stable for 24 hours, without forgetting to breathe and without spells when her heart rate dropped to a near stop.

Permission was given to the mother to be a mother. But she would continue to be monitored.

The day came to go home. A nurse took a picture of the baby with the hospital’s Polaroid camera. She gave it to the mother, who couldn’t wait to see the picture emerge on the square. It was anticlimactic, but they were ready to go. The mother didn’t feel like the baby was hers. It felt weird to leave the hospital with this baby who was hers.

As she walked to the parking lot, now with her baby, and not empty-handed, it was a different exit than those she had witnessed every day for three months. It was quiet.

She opened her car door, placing the car seat, and buckling the seatbelt.

This was the moment. The wait had been so long. The baby was born in the winter. And now it was almost summer.

Once in the young mother’s apartment in Minneapolis, she took the baby out of the car seat. She held her close to her heart. She put her cheek next to the baby’s cheek. And softly she said, “We are home now.” She imagined showing the baby how beautiful life was.

And from that moment, she did.